Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a bishop, a psychic, and an baron/author from the 1800s* walk into a haunted monastery, where they must then learn to work together to unravel its dark secrets and correct the hideous deeds that occurred there in the past — if they want to escape alive. This is the basic premise driving Koudelka, the Gothic horror strategy RPG released in late 1999 by Sacnoth, which later spawned the dark and humorous Shadow Hearts series. Koudelka is the product of a group that broke away from Square and intended to buck the formula they were seeing in RPGs of the time. It was far more successful in some ways than others, and I would argue that the cast and characterization in Koudelka is one of its largest successes, helping influence trends not only in Shadow Hearts, but in RPGs as a whole.
If, at this point, you are thinking this setup sounds more like a survival horror game than an RPG, you are undoubtedly correct. There is only a trio of characters as opposed to a large party, and the entirety of the game transpires in a single location (in Wales, no less) rather than the group exploring an expansive world. At face value, the backgrounds and personalities of the characters fit more into that category as well, but it’s really the interactions between the characters and their reactions to the more typical survival horror situations that reveal Koudelka as an RPG with a surprising amount of emotional power.
…the interactions between the characters […] reveal Koudelka as an RPG with a surprising amount of emotional power
Koudelka herself makes her living as a psychic medium and is drawn to the monastery by the call of a particularly strong spirit. She almost literally stumbles into an injured Edward Plunkett, a fortune seeker who heard rumors about the monastery being defiled and claims his original intention was to “put a poor man’s fear of God” into the owner. Needless to say, he was not expecting it to be full of restless spirits and undead creatures (and I need to take a minute here to say that some of the enemy designs in this game are truly creepy and grotesque). The one person who probably expected this even less than Edward is James O’Flaherty, the Bishop that Koudelka and Edward rescue when he is found unconscious in the lair of the game’s first boss.
This sort of heroic behavior is usually met with gratitude, but James immediately labels the others as ruffians there to raid the monastery and refuses to believe their accounts that the monastery’s caretakers tried to poison them. He decides to join them anyway, which is not a pleasant experience for anyone involved. The level of bickering that ensues is astonishing (aided by good voice acting and some fantastic one-liners), and for a large portion of the game, that is a lot of what you get: Koudelka, ever the pragmatist, takes jabs at James’ religious devotion while loudly demanding that the two men keep quiet and follow her if they want to survive; James and Koudelka imply that Edward is simple, violent, or (heaven forbid) an average Joe while relying on him in battle; James and Edward make a wide array of assumptions about Koudelka without any real knowledge.
Meanwhile, they discover that the monastery had also been a prison where many died unjustly in the name of political gain, and find proof that murders are still occurring under the current caretakers’ watch. Even though James refuses to acknowledge this for a long while, the three do set themselves up in opposition to it. To summarize, here are three unheroic people who happen to take heroic action, and the game loves to play with your expectations around this. Edward and Koudelka, the vagabonds, are more self-motivated to help others, and James, the one who should be the moral compass, harbors disturbing and sometimes authoritarian beliefs. Moments arise where these standards are disrupted, though, like when James and Edward find common ground debating poetry, or when the trio encounters an actual thief who attacks them to increase his share of the monastery’s treasures. In this case, Edward’s violent reaction to the thief nearly overshadows James’s flaws, even if Edward’s decision was intended to make the group safer. They grow accustomed to each other through these exchanges, and even reunite after they become separated. It becomes quite the layered portrayal, and makes you want to learn more about the characters and what will happen to them.
The payoff for this development happens near the end of the game. James eventually has to come to terms with his personal connection to Nemeton Monastery and needs the help of the others to put things right. Having been with him as they discovered the tragic events that motivated the murderous caretakers and warped the monastery into a place of evil, Koudelka and Edward stand with him, despite James giving them an opportunity to do only what is required, and then leave. Koudelka opens up to Edward about her past, relating it to a particular spirit they’ve seen, and the result is moving—especially when she says “Even someone like me can do good.” That’s really what this game is about: the capacity all of us have to choose to do good in a given moment. Seeing the trio’s journey and ultimate choice to do good intertwined with the story of the previous inhabitants, whose desperate decisions were ultimately selfish, more than makes up for slow gameplay and weapons that break all the time.
*Edward Plunkett does, in fact, have a historical counterpart, and that’s basically who he was. He was also a shooting champion and very serious about chess.